By the Blouin News Politics staff

Unrest in Burkino Faso, explained

by in Africa.

Burkinese Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida, (3L), named by Burkina Faso's army as interim leader following the ousting of president Blaise Compaore, poses with military leaders after a meeting on November 3, 2014 in Ouagadougou.

Burkinese Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida (3L) was named by Burkina Faso’s army as interim leader. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty

The African Union gave the military rulers at the helm of Burkino Faso’s interim government an ultimatum on Monday: hand over power to a civil administration within two weeks, or risk sanctions against the country. The mandated timeframe aims to end a chaotic sequence of events in the African nation, which saw a longtime president ousted by a popular uprising, which was then co-opted by Burkino Faso’s armed forces – all in six days. Here we dissect the factors behind the current unrest, the major players involved, and why a smooth resolution to the crisis in Burkino Faso is critical to regional stability.

What happened?

President Blaise Compaoré stepped down on October 31 amid heated protests to his 27-year-long rule. (Think a protest rally that reportedly drew one million people, and demonstrators setting the parliament building on fire.) Twenty-four hours later, the national army named Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida –the former second-in-command of Compaoré’s presidential guard — as interim leader.

What sparked the protests?

For many Burkinabe, Campaoré is the only president they have ever known. (The average age in Burkino Faso is seventeen.) After taking power in a violent coup in 1987, Compaoré instituted an autocratic state apparatus built on military support and one-party rule. During this time, living standards stagnated in Burkino Faso, which ranks among Africa’s poorest nations. Unemployment and illiteracy remain high, and corruption widespread.

Frustration and resentment over Compaore’s nearly three-decade-long run was ignited by reports that the president would be running for another term. One day before his resignation, Burkinabe lawmakers were preparing to vote on a modification to the national constitution that would allow the president to run again – prompting protesters to storm parliament and demand Compaoré’s resignation.

Who are the key players?

For now, Compaoré looks to be out of the picture and enjoying a cozy exile in the Ivory Coast (though the opposition Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party has protested the ousted leader’s presence). Leaving Zida as the country’s interim leader, albeit not without a fight. Other pretenders to the Burkinabe throne include General Honoré Traoré, who declared himself president on Thursday – before Compaoré had even stepped down; opposition leader Saran Sérémé, who declared herself president on Sunday during a rally, before being reportedly escorted away by several soldiers; and finally General Kwamé Lougué, a former defense minister in Compaoré’s cabinet and perhaps Zida’s most credible challenger.

What next?

If the initial jockeying is any indication, a rocky transition is ahead. Expect a heated power struggle between various military factions, namely Traoré and Zida’s camps. Compaoré may continue to wield some influence in Ouagadougou, as the opposition struggles to unify.

However, the grassroots ideals of the popular protest movement already look to be fading – along with the #AfricanSpring hashtag – replaced by an inflexible transitional government. While Zida reportedly enjoys backing from civil society groups — notably the Citizen’s Broom, which played an active role in the protests — his first moves are far from reassuring. The military leader has suspended the Constitution and closed Burkino Faso’s borders. For now, it’s unclear whether the country will hold elections originally scheduled to take place in January.

Why does this matter?

It is possible that events in Burkino Faso could spark a wave of popular protests across the region – or at least dissuade other autocrats from similar attempts to prolong their rule. Given the localized nature of recent protests however, i.e, a constitutional amendment to modify term limits, it is more likely that unrest will remain isolated to Burkino Faso.

The best case scenario would be a trajectory like that of Mali: popular protests leading to a president’s ouster, followed by a transition period led by a military ruler who would then step down. (In 1991, Amadou Toumani Touré took power after the ouster of General Moussa Traoré, but stepped down the following year when a presidential election was held.)

Intervention by external parties is unlikely, with regional bodies like the AU and the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, doing little (as of now) besides threatening sanctions. However, look for both Washington and Paris to keep a close eye on events. Under Compaoré, Burkino Faso has played a critical role as a regional mediator, notably during Mali’s security crisis in 2012, as well as serving as a base for security operations run by France and the United States. The latter built a base for drones in Burkino Faso to combat the extremist threat in the region; France has special forces deployed there for the same reason – meaning that both have a vested interest in the country’s stability.